How to Punctuate Non-“He Said” Attributions of Quotations

By Mark Nichol

The speaker of a quotation or a line of dialogue is normally identified in an attribution, a phrase as simple as “he said” that attributes the words to a particular person. However, there are other ways to attribute, including the ones illustrated in these examples, that don’t explicitly require an attributive verb.

The sentences below illustrate the major difference between explicit and implicit attribution: punctuation (or lack thereof). (Note that explicit and implicit are not terms of art; I’m using them in the absence of, to my knowledge, any established terminology for these distinct types of attribution.)

When “he said” or the like follows a quotation, it is preceded by a comma; if, less often, the attribution comes first, a comma follows it. Meanwhile, a colon, not a comma, should follow attributions such as “She had this to say in her defense.” But note the deletion of commas or colons in revisions to the following examples in which the attribution is merely implied:

1. “I had been opening my speeches with the line, ‘Are we entering a new era of American prejudice?’”
When a sentence that includes a quotation does not include an explicit attribution, and the quotation is grammatically integrated into the sentence, omit any intervening punctuation: “I had been opening my speeches with the line ‘Are we entering a new era of American prejudice?’”

2. “‘The deepest bias in the history of the American people,’ is how historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. referred to our nation’s history of anti-Catholic prejudice.”
See the explanation of the revision above; the same guideline applies when the quotation opens the sentence: “‘The deepest bias in the history of the American people’ is how historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. referred to our nation’s history of anti-Catholic prejudice.”

3. “You’ll be hearing from him again” was my friend’s guess.
This sentence and its attribution are simpler than the preceding sentence and its attribution, but the rule is the same — when a verb follows a quotation, punctuation after the quotation is unnecessary: “‘You’ll be hearing from him again’ was my friend’s guess.”

4. “I think they’re going to have that mentality of: ‘How dare he?’”
In this case, punctuation is redundant to the preposition that precedes the quotation: “I think they’re going to have that mentality of ‘How dare he?’” The statement is colloquial; if it were not a direct quotation, it could be revised to a slightly more formal version: “I think they’re going to have that ‘How dare he?’ mentality.”

5. “To pass a necessity test usually means a negative response to the question: ‘Can the same result be obtained by other means?’”
As in the first example, above, this sentence’s quotation is integrated into the flow of the sentence, so no punctuation is required: “To pass a necessity test usually means a negative response to the question ‘Can the same result be obtained by other means?’”

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1 Response to “How to Punctuate Non-“He Said” Attributions of Quotations”

  • Curtis

    And I thought I’d seen all the special-case punctuation rules . . .

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